Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Business and work (page 1 of 19)

Our ideas about work and rest in the workplace

Working hours in South Korea are coming down

The Guardian reports that the South Korean government has voted to cut back the ‘inhumanely long’ 68-hour working week:

Employees in one of the most overworked countries in Asia are about to get a break after South Korea passed a bill to reduce the typical work week in an effort to improve quality of life and boost employment.

South Korea’s National Assembly overwhelmingly passed the law which cut the maximum weekly work hours to 52, down from 68. The law comes into force in July and will apply to large companies before being rolled out to smaller businesses.

The thing is, Korea’s productivity is not as high as countries like Germany and the Netherlands, which work far shorter hours– which suggests that those working hours are not well-spent.

Captains of industry and their hobbies

Grand Central Station

[Note: Every book project leaves material on the cutting-room floor that deserves to be published somewhere. This is a piece based on some research that didn’t make it into REST, and which I recently wrote up for LinkedIn.]

Overwork is one of the great problems of modern life. The pace of business is accelerating, companies demand longer hours, smartphones allow us to carry the office around with us 24/7, and being busy is a badge of honor. But while overwork now has the quality of a public health crisis, for professionals, entrepreneurs and executives in America it’s nothing new. In 1878, a doctor lamented in the New York Times that rest was a “forgotten art.” In the 1890s, Harvard philosopher William James lamented Americans’ love of overwork, and argued his fellow citizens would be more productive if they embraced “the gospel of relaxation.”

But one of the early twentieth century’s most consistent critics of chronic busyness and overwork was one of the most unexpected: Bertie Forbes, the pioneering business journalist and founder of Forbes magazine.

Bertie Charles Forbes was born in 1880, and spent his childhood in the Scottish Highlands. At seventeen he became a reporter in Dundee; in 1901 he went to South Africa to cover the Boer War, then in 1905 moved to New York, where he became of the leading financial reporters of his day. He then started the B. C. Forbes Publishing Company; his eponymous magazine first appeared in 1917.

One of Forbes’ specialities was the biographical profile of industrialists, bankers, and inventors who oversaw the growth of its modern industrial and corporate America. In his profiles of leading businessmen (and in the early twentieth century they were pretty much all men), Forbes almost always noted the strategies his subjects discovered– often after periods of overwork and burnout– for maintaining their health, restoring their mental and physical energy, and balancing hard work with recreation. He anticipates by a century current research (summarized in my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less) that finds that rest doesn’t just restore mental and physical energy, but– when taken in the right ways– can stimulate innovative thinking and sustain creative lives.

These profiles almost always called attention to the hobbies of the era’s industrial giants. Andrew Carnegie “lived a well-diversified life in New York, with frequent trips to Europe, interspersed with journeys to the Orient and other distant places,” and “no man goes in more whole-heartedly for sport and other forms of recreation than” Coleman du Pont. Teddy Roosevelt was an exemplar of the busy public figure who “boisterously… enters into recreation.” US Steel president James Farrell and mining entrepreneur August Heckscher were avid sailors. Railroad magnate James “Empire Builder” Hill was an accomplished violinist. Retail pioneer John Shedd praised golf as “one of the greatest blessings of modern times… for it has drawn men of responsible affairs away from their tasks into the open air.”

Others, Forbes reported, preferred more down-to-earth pursuits. Charles Nash would hunt and fish in the forests of Michigan and Wisconsin when he wasn’t running Nash Motors and turning around distressed companies. Tire giant Harvey Firestone spent weeks camping, albeit in the company of figures like naturalist John Burroughs, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and President Warren Harding. “Tramping and camping in the woods is the best thing I know of for developing, not only a man’s physique, but his mentality and his soul,” inventor Cyrus McCormick told Forbes.

Executives’ respect for the restorative power of rest sometimes influenced company policies. Dodge CEO Frederick Haynes declared that while he “would never think of putting up a recreation building at the plant” since “men want to get away from the plant after their day’s work, to be with their families,” his company supported worker-organized clubs and teams. George Reynolds implemented a five-day week at his Chicago bank, arguing that in modern finance, “The pace is so rapid and the pressure so great that a man cannot stand up against it… if he works more than five days a week.”

For someone who subtitled his magazine “Devoted to Doers and Doings,” this attention to recreation may seem odd. But Forbes argued that the right kind of rest, taken in the right doses, was essential for success.

According to Forbes, successful people revealed that “How we spend our non-working hours determines very largely how capably or incapably we spend our working hours.” It was essential to recognize that “Real recreation quickens aspiration,” and helps “to increase our fitness, enhance our usefulness, spur achievement.” Too many people ”confound recreation with dissipation,” wasting their time on idle amusements and subverting their careers. Other more senior executives “are committing suicide by overwork.”

But this did not mean that recreation was the purpose of life, or that work was to be avoided. America’s industrialists had “taught effete aristocrats of Europe that industry is no disgrace, that honest work and money-making soil not the best of hands.” Indeed, the idle rich “are of all men the most miserable,” Forbes argued, for “[w]ithout toil there can be no blissful relaxation or recreation.” Hard work and healthy rest balanced and justified each other. “The person who has no work,” Forbes said, “can have no recreation, no relaxation.”

So what sorts of rest were the most restorative? Choosing a hobby, Forbes argued, couldn’t be done on a whim; “You need to settle that wisely and not by chance.” Recreation had to balance a busy life. Office workers and sedentary professionals needed sports and exercise; merchants and traders would benefit from retreats in contemplative and artistic activities; executives bearing the solitude of leadership needed the companionship of others in similar situations. Forbes was especially keen on exercise, advising readers to join a golf club or gym, or even “move into the country where you will have to walk a mile to catch the train even in the dead of winter.”

Forbes was not along among early business writers in taking rest seriously. Walter Dill Scott, who pioneered the use of psychology in advertising, advised his busy readers on the need to balance long hours with a hobby “so absorbing that when he is thus engaged, business is banished from mind.” Winston Churchill wrote that “The cultivation of a hobby” is “of first importance to a public man.

Today, businesses and busy professionals are beginning to rediscover that, as Forbes put it, “Whether we use our leisure to re-create power or dissipate power is of decisive moment.” Efforts to improve work-life balance, encourage workers to take vacations, unplug in the evenings, get more exercise, or even take catnaps during the day all recognize that rest need not be work’s competitor, but can be its partner. Neuroscientists and psychologists are documenting the value of walks for stimulating creative insight, of time in nature for restoring emotional balance, and of a healthy social life for promoting resilience.

And as I explain in my book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, many highly creative, prolific, and successful people organize their days around bouts of hard work and “deliberate rest,” and choose leisure that stimulates their creativity, supports good habits, and sustains long creative lives. The careers of Nobel Prize-winners, authors, artists, and even generals show that, as Forbes wrote a century ago, success “is most often won during non business hours, the hours that are spent away from the bench or the office; the hours during which we are our own masters; the hours we are at liberty to use or misuse.”

It’s high time we re-read Forbes’ lessons, and applied them to our own lives.

Happiness and LSE podcasts

rerum cognoscere causas

I’m a fan of podcasts. When I take the dogs out walking in the evening, I’ll often listen to a podcast, since the dogs generally have little to talk about. (In the mornings I’m often still focused on writing, and so I listen to music– not so much because I want to concentrate, but because I want to let my mind wander, and I can’t do that if I’m listening to a podcast.)

Recently I discovered the London School of Economics Public Lectures and Events podcast, and I’m really enjoying it. The audio quality is middling, but the intellectual quality is outstanding. It helps to be familiar with these kinds of events already: they’re not TED talk-level short and smooth, but if the frayed edges of academic conversation strike you as charming rather than irritating, you’ll learn a lot.

I particularly found this event about “the origins of happiness” to be really interesting. It’s a talk by Richard Layard, an LSE economic and the author of Thrive, Happiness, and coauthor of the new book The Origins of Happiness.

The event was to commemorate the publication of the new book The Origins of Happiness, which Princeton University Press is releasing in the US in a couple weeks. Here’s a description of the book:

What makes people happy? Why should governments care about people’s well-being? How would policy change if well-being was the main objective? The Origins of Happiness seeks to revolutionize how we think about human priorities and to promote public policy changes that are based on what really matters to people. Drawing on a uniquely comprehensive range of evidence from longitudinal data on over one hundred thousand individuals in Britain, the United States, Australia, and Germany, the authors consider the key factors that affect human well-being.

The authors explore factors such as income, education, employment, family conflict, health, childcare, and crime—and their findings are not what we might expect. Contrary to received wisdom, income inequality accounts for only two percent or less of the variance in happiness across the population; the critical factors affecting a person’s happiness are their relationships and their mental and physical health. More people are in misery due to mental illness than to poverty, unemployment, or physical illness. Examining how childhood influences happiness in adulthood, the authors show that academic performance is a less important predictor than emotional health and behavior, which is shaped tremendously by schools, individual teachers, and parents. For policymakers, the authors propose new forms of cost-effectiveness analysis that places well-being at center stage.

This resonates with me for a couple thanks to my work on companies that are implementing shorter working hours, for a couple reasons. First, I’ve been struck by how willing people are to trade income for greater control at work, and more free time. Working in a place that has a 5- or 6-hour day requires being able to focus and work harder than at a place where you are there for 8 or 10 hours, and it requires being able to work under conditions where you have a higher degree of autonomy and responsibility.

Second, it strikes me that if income inequality is less of a source of unhappiness than relationships and personal health, then as a matter of public or economic policy, giving people more time– which translates into more time for family and friends, and more time for yourself– could be the more important long-term aim. (This is not to say that inequality should be ignored or tolerated, but I suspect there are plenty of CEOs who’d have an easier time accepting shorter working hours for their company than higher taxes on themselves.)

Their new podcast on solitude versus loneliness is well worth listening to, too. But I need to add Layard’s work to my to-read list.

“Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days:” Daniel Pink on time of day and performance

Daniel Pink has an excerpt from his new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, that talks about the rather large effect circadian rhythms have on our daily performance:

Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days. Across many domains, the trough represents a danger zone for productivity, ethics, and health. Anesthesia is one example. Researchers at Duke Medical Center reviewed about 90,000 surgeries at the hospital and identified what they called “anesthetic adverse events”— either mistakes anesthesiologists made, harm they caused to patients, or both. Adverse events were significantly “more frequent for cases starting during the 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. hours.” The probability of a problem at 9 a.m. was about 1 percent. At 4 p.m., 4.2 percent. In other words, the chance of something going awry was four times greater during the trough than during the peak.

I think everyone has been in those after-lunch meetings where the room gets heavy, and people struggle to stay alert and pay attention. This is not just a function having had one too many martinis with lunch: it’s a universal thing. Yet the modern workday is organized with the assumption that every hour is identical to every other, and that we operate with the same level of effectiveness on any kind of task whether it’s 9:01 AM or 4:58 PM.

Indeed, in my study of companies that have shortened office hours, one of the consistent things they do is craft the workday to better match people’s daily rhythms: they let people work on their most important tasks when they’re most energetic, and put off less significant things (and many meetings) until later in the day, when you might have less energy and attention– but you might also need to spend less, as well.

“Like an empire that has expanded too far, work may be both more powerful and more vulnerable than ever before”

In the MRT
Commute time on the Singapore subway

The Guardian has recently has been publishing some terrific essays on the future of work. Peter Fleming’s piece earlier this week (and for that matter, his various other Guardian essays) turns out to have been just the start: it was followed by John Harris’ piece asking “What happens when the jobs dry up in the new world?” and now Andy Beckett’s long essay on “the radical idea of a world without jobs:”

Like an empire that has expanded too far, work may be both more powerful and more vulnerable than ever before. We know work’s multiplying problems intimately, but it feels impossible to solve them all. Is it time to start thinking of an alternative?

The piece is a high-altitude survey of the work of David Graeber, Benjamin Hunnicutt, Peter Fleming, and other writers who Beckett describes as

members of a loose, transatlantic network of thinkers who advocate a profoundly different future for western economies and societies, and also for poorer countries, where the crises of work and the threat to it from robots and climate change are, they argue, even greater. They call this future “post-work”.

I’m not sure how much of it I agree with– I still find psychological research on the value of work to be pretty compelling– but as someone who’s written about the need to recognize the value of rest, I’m definitely intrigued by this literature. Anyway, the Beckett essay is well worth reading, especially if this literature isn’t yet familiar.

BlackRock pressing for greater social responsibility

This is an interesting development: BlackRock, the world’s largest investor, is preparing to tell companies in its portfolio, “Contribute to Society, or Risk Losing Our Support:”

Laurence D. Fink, founder and chief executive of the investment firm BlackRock, is going to inform business leaders that their companies need to do more than make profits — they need to contribute to society as well if they want to receive the support of BlackRock….

“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” he wrote in a draft of the letter that was shared with me. “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”

As the article notes, this is the latest example of investors trying to get companies to take their social responsibilities more seriously.

Why are Americans’ wages flat? A new article argues it’s about monopsony

Slate reports on a new theory for why Americans can’t get a raise:

The paper… argues that, across different cities and different fields, hiring is concentrated among a relatively small number of businesses, which may have given managers the ability to keep wages lower than if there were more companies vying for talent. This is not the same as saying there are simply too many job hunters chasing too few openings—the paper, which is still in an early draft form, is designed to rule out that possibility. Instead, its authors argue that the labor market may be plagued by what economists call a monopsony problem, where a lack of competition among employers gives businesses outsize power over workers, including the ability to tamp down on pay. If the researchers are right, it could have important implications for how we think about antitrust, unions, and the minimum wage….

The team looked at the number of companies advertising jobs [on] in more than two dozen different occupations, from nurses to accountants to telemarketers, in each of the country’s different metro and nonmetro areas between 2010 and 2013. They then calculated local labor market concentration using the awkwardly named Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, or HHI, which antitrust regulators use to analyze the effects of mergers on competition.

What they found was a bit startling. The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission consider a market with an HHI score of 2,500 or more to be highly concentrated—if a merger between two wireless companies left that little competition for cell services, for instance, there’s a good chance the government’s lawyers would challenge it. In their paper, the authors find that America’s local labor markets had a whopping average HHI score of 3,157. Employers also tended to advertise lower pay in cities and towns where fewer businesses were posting jobs—suggesting that the lack of competition among companies was letting them suppress pay. According to one of their calculations, moving from the 25th percentile of labor market concentration to the 75th percentile would lower pay in a metro area by 17 percent.

Roombot and meeting scheduling

In my study of how companies shorten their workdays, one of the things I’ve consistently seen is companies shortening meetings, and doing a number of things to make meetings more effective: requiring pre-circulated agendas and goals, sharing background material beforehand, having walking or standing meetings, and making sure that conference call phones and other tech are running smoothly before the meeting is scheduled to start, so you don’t spend the first 10 minutes looking for dry-erase markers or punching in conference codes.

They also use tools to signal when meeting times are up, or when the group only has a few minutes left. The most popular tools are kitchen timers and smartphone alarms (unless your company bans devices in meetings, which is another popular thing), but a couple have taken a more high-tech approach: using Philips Hue lightbulbs and some locally-sourced code to have the room itself signal when you should start wrapping up.

I first heard about this tool at IIH Nordic, a Copenhagen-based SEO firm that moved to a 4-day week, but others use it, too. Philadelphia design firm O3 World calls their RoomBot, and explains how their system works in this video:

It’s a cool system, but the important thing is to have some kind of external tool that announces when your time is up.

Putting REST to use at the New York Times

James Pothen, a software engineer with the New York Times, has a great piece about “ How to Concentrate in a Collaborative Workplace:”

When I first started working in an office, I worked haphazardly. I would come in, check work email, maybe chat with a colleague, start on a task, and then check Facebook or YouTube. Working this way nearly got me fired after two years. So I took the opportunity to be more intentional about what I worked on and how I worked.

What follows is my adaptation of the principles laid out in Cal Newport’s book, “Deep Work.” I’ve also incorporated material from “Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, and “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

I highly recommend it. It’s a nice example of how you can take the ideas from Rest and put them into practice. And everything he says makes lots of sense!

Jabra video on deliberate rest

In September when I was in Europe, I gave a talk at Jabra corporate headquarters, just outside Copenhagen (where I had some excellent food, and saw some cool cats). We shot some video of me talking about deliberate rest, and Jabra has now created a short video from it. (Sorry about the auto-play.)

As a place that makes some outstanding headsets for office use, Jabra is really interested in issues of focus and concentration in business environments, so it turned out to be a great place to talk about deliberate rest and my earlier work on contemplative computing. (I’ll confess I have no fewer than four pair of Jabra headphones– two sets that I’ve used for everyday listening, a pair of their Bluetooth earbuds, and a set of noise-canceling office headphones. They’re all awesome.) And of course they did a great job with the video!

A few months ago I was doing an Al Jazeera show, and during the sound check beforehand one of the other guests described me as “the silver gent.” I suppose I see what he meant. Mentally I don’t feel like i’ve aged in the last twenty years (I feel like fundamentally the same person I was when I was a postdoc, or first married), but I have gotten more silver.

And anyone who meets me on the road is likely to see me wearing some variation of those clothes– the black shirt and black cashmere jacket, and jeans. What can I say; one of my professors extolled the virtues of wearing black on the road, and I still dress that way out of respect for her.

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